Keigo Higashino is a literary household name throughout his native Japan and Asia in the same manner that James Patterson is known within the United States. He has been writing since the mid-1980s, and while he has amassed an enviable bibliography --- and garnered awards for his novels along the way --- THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X is only the second of his books to achieve publication in the United States and the first to be accorded major distribution. The wait has been worth it. This is a major work that transcends genres and cultures, a psychological thriller touching upon the core issue of humanity in a unique way by asking this question: How far would you go to protect someone you loved, even if your feelings were unrequited?
THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X is driven equally by character and plot. Nearly everyone knows someone who is at least a little like Ishigami, whom we meet early on. He is quiet and plain-looking, the type of person who barely registers to the eye of the beholder, worthy of the courtesy of a nod or hello in passing, but little more. It turns out that Ishigami is a genius in the field of mathematics, underemployed as a mid-level studies math teacher attempting to enlighten the ungrateful and unappreciative assigned to his classes. His nights are given over to working out theorems of his own and proving those of others. He becomes so engrossed in this activity that sometimes he forgets to go to bed.
Ishigami’s only other interest is in his next-door neighbor, a single mother named Yasuko Hanaoka. Infatuated with her, he buys his lunch every day from the bakery where she works so at least he can have some interaction with her, which she barely notices. Ishigami suddenly finds himself deeply involved in Yasuko’s life when Shinji Togashi, her abusive ex-husband, comes to her apartment one evening. An altercation ensues that leaves Togashi dead at the hands of Yasuko and her daughter, Misato. Ishigami, hearing the noise of the altercation next door, immediately deduces what happens and initiates a plan to protect Yasuko and Misato. To do this, Ishigami constructs what is nothing more or less than a perfect alibi for them, one that cannot be shaken or disproved.
Kusanagi, the lead detective in charge of the investigation, intuitively doubts Yasuko’s innocence, since Togashi’s trail up to the point of his death seems to lead almost to Yasuko’s front door. He does what he normally does when confronted with a puzzle, which is to seek out his friend, Manabu Yukawa, a brilliant physicist --- also underemployed as an associate professor --- to assist him as a sounding board. Yukawa happens to be an old friend of Ishigami from their university days. The attentions of Kusanagi and particularly Yukawa are slowly drawn to Ishigami, due to his proximity to Yasuko and his all-but-obvious attraction to her. They suspect that he may well have assisted her in her ex-husband’s murder. Yet there is that perfect alibi, which checks out in every way. The investigators are confronted with a problem: How could Ishigami have assisted Yasuko in committing a crime she could not have committed? Kusanagi and Yukawa are confounded until a startling revelation is made, which turns everything upside down. It seems all is resolved. Until it’s not.
THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X won Japan’s Naoki Sanjugo Prize, awarded for the best work of popular literature in any format. Read the book and you’ll understand why. It will haunt you, prick you, and make you doubt yourself and wonder about those around you, the ones you see every day and barely notice. And you will read the last 50 or so pages multiple times. Strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011